Fighting religious indoctrination in South African schools

I have been hearing from Christopher, a reader of this blog and is a secular activist in South Africa, about a court case that being waged in that country to remove religious bias in their public schools. The group that has brought the case is called OGOD which is an acronym for the Afrikaans Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie. The group challenged the practices of six schools that are explicitly teaching Christian doctrine.

The legal basis for the suit is that these schools have breached the national policy on religion and education by conducting religious observances and other religious activities. This, OGOD claims, is unconstitutional as it violates the right to equality and religious freedom. It argues that these schools cannot, for example, teach that non-believers will go to hell. The organisation also insists that pupils cannot be required to pray and sing Christian songs.

According to OGOD’s heads of argument, these schools were targeted specifically because they:

* Adopt a single faith approach to religious observances;
* Endorse Christianity;
* Advertise themselves as Christian; and
* Have scripture reading and prayers, among other actions.

The goals of OGOD are highly commendable:

• Promote in-depth, fact-based education about religions of the world.
• Eradicate religious indoctrination through public schools.
• Identify and expose religious counterknowledge and magical thinking.
• Shield children from the psychological dangers of religious damnation.
• Promote a democratic, secular and human rights based South African society.
• Eradicate religious elitism.

The problem that they are addressing is one that should be familiar to us in the US, in that people who are in the religious majority keep trying to promote their religion exclusively. Christians make up close to 85% of the population of South Africa and some are trying to subvert the neutral official religious instruction policy as outlined in the National Policy on Religion and Education to pursue sectarian religion instruction.

This article explains how current practices by the six schools violates the official policy.

That policy allows for religious practices in schools, but emphasises that schools should engage in religion education rather than religious instruction. Children should be taught about religions, rather than taught to be religious. Yet, many public schools, such as the 6 named in the court case, explicitly adopt a particular religious character, thus immediately creating a bias in favour of that religion.

In that context – even if you create alternate activities for non-religious kids and kids who regard themselves as belonging to a different religion – you are making them do the work of disassociating themselves from a dominant ethos, and the school is then not neutral towards religion – a norm is in place, that needs to be actively rejected by the child.

If you’re 10 years old – or even older – this might not be an easy thing to do at all, given the peer pressure you likely encounter, and the stigmatisation that might result from rejecting the norm in question. To put it simply: opting-in, rather than opting-out, should be the default structure of this decision.

So we see that the goals of the lawsuit are actually quite modest. But of course, the religious do not see it that way. They raise the familiar but false argument that a secular policy that demands neutrality between religions and between religion and non-religion is one that discriminates against religion because it inhibits the range of activities of the religious majority. This is very similar to the thinking and methods of religious groups in the US that try to circumvent the Establishment Clause and bring back explicit sectarian religious instruction in schools.

The case has been pursued since 2009 but was argued just last week by the Gauteng South Gauteng High Court. I am not sure what the law is in South Africa but according to the article in the above link:

To conclude: Section 15(2) of South Africa’s Constitution provides that “religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions provided that these observances (a) follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities; (b) are conducted on an equitable basis; and (c) attendance at them is free and voluntary”.

OGOD isn’t trying to change that clause. They are highlighting, among other things, the point that the clause say “may be conducted at state institutions”, rather than “by state institutions” – in other words that as much as these observances can happen, a school cannot be a “Christian school” or a “Satanic school” or whatever.

The separation language in the South African constitution is not as strict about separation as exists in the US constitution. This means that the case will be more difficult to win. I am not sure when the judges will issue their ruling but will pass it on when I hear of it.

Here is Hans Pietersen of OGOD, one of the people behind the movement, talking last November about the case and how difficult it is to bring such a case because of the immense hostility they face from even their family and friends and colleagues and employers.


  1. says

    Thanks for posting this, Mano. Hans Pietersen is indeed the face behind the OGOD movement and the person who brought the application.

    As we don’t have a jury system, the case was heard by a full bench of three judges in the South Gauteng High court and the ruling will take some time, however, the opposition will probably seek an appeal at the supreme court of appeals and we hope this will make it all the way to the Constitutional court, where things are about our constitutional rights.

    This case is really about challenging the last vestiges of our past Apartheid regime where the white nationalists claimed that ours was a Christian nation, a persistently pervasive culture in our schools that didn’t wake up and adopt the values of tolerance over intolerance, equality over superiority as is enshrined in the values of our constitution under our new secular democracy.

  2. Smokey says

    A secular policy that demands neutrality between religions and between religion and non-religion is one that discriminates against religion?

    OK. Let’s teach religion. Let’s teach ALL THE RELIGIONS!

    If you want to see tolerance, look at the minority religions. If you want to see intolerance, look at the majority religion.

  3. says

    Yeah.. it’s kinda strange how the religious conservatives who pride themselves in being good, hones, moral Christians find nothing wrong with lying for Jesus. I’ve never met an honest creationist and this is sorta the same deal. Lying is one thing, but telling half-truths or misrepresenting the facts to suit a particular agenda?

    Just asking not to be coerced into going along with all their silly religious customs and legends is apparrently equivalent to denying their right to practice their faith, but why should practicing one’s faith mean forcing Jesus down everyone’s throat and to ostracize or bully those who don’t really conform?

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